A Rendez-vous with India’s Frida Kahlo

Amrita Sher-Gil, a name with which I was very familiar, an artist I had heard much about and whose works I knew from the lovely coffee table book at my best friend’s place.

Amrita Sher-Gil_NGMASo when the NGMA had a retrospective, I knew I had to go, even though it is no longer in my backyard. (Alas!) I often get asked by many unenlightened souls, who haven’t had the fortune of being introduced the wonders of art, why I would take the effort to juggle my schedule and fight traffic , just to go see some works of art I came easily see online. “To better appreciate the finer details,” I answer. But that’s not the entire truth. It is to feel that sense of unadulterated appreciation and awe when I stand in front of the oeuvre d’art that I have much admired and read about for so long. It is for the moment of sheer joy when I discover a painting I didn’t know about. And above all, it’s for those hedonistic moments when I can indulge my eyes and soak in the beauty in front of me. Amrita Sher-Gil described this last feeling aptly in her letter to Karl Khandalwala in 1937:

“How can one feel the beauty of a form, the intensity or the subtlety of colours, the quality of a line, unless one is a sensualist of the eyes”

I am very much a sensualist of the eyes, so though at the fag end of the show, off I went one hot afternoon, to soak in the beauty of Sher-Gil’s work. The exhibit was on the first floor of the building, with an introduction to her life, style and work displayed on the way up.

Armita Sher-Gil_NGMA1
Once inside, I was drawn immediately to the portraits with which I associate Sher-Gil. Bold, with clearly defined lines, portraits of models, most of which seem to have a rather broad jaw-line. Walking through, noting the dates, I couldn’t help but marvel at how skilled she was even in the beginning of her career, as a young student at Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. Her work displays a deep sensuality and an ability to look beyond and see her subject’s soul, evident in her portraits right from the early 30s to the later works in India. Known as India’s Frida Kahlo for her unique way of blending European styles with more “primitive” (i.e Indian) settings, she is one of the rare artists to have transcended both the European and the Indian worlds.

Amrita Sher-Gil_Work1

Sometimes disturbing, always hauntingly beautiful, her work, I think, strikes a chord in even the most art agnostic individual. I stood lost in front of the portraits, mesmerised, rueing the fact that I couldn’t make it for the films and so very glad to have not missed the exhibit…

As I walked out, goosebumps dotting my arms despite the afternoon sun, I felt that familiar surge of unadulterated pleasure surge through my veins. The pleasure that can be derived only in the presence of great art.

Previous posts about events/shows at the NGMA:
  1. A Letter from Courbet
  2. Sundays at NGMA
  3. Elephant Boy – a film screening at the NGMA
  4. Rendez-vous with Pollock and Basquiat


Book Review : Girl With A Pearl Earring

A student handed this book to me last weekend after a discussion about art and novels inspired by art works during the previous weekend class, asking me to read it. The minute I saw the cover, I knew that this would be one of those books I would not be able to set aside till I finished it. I started reading it that very evening and had it not been for an extremely exhausting week I would have finished it in one sitting. I finished it the next day… 🙂 I am now going to try and get hold of the film, released in 2003, starring Scarlett Johansson and Colin Firth !

Set in 17th century Holland, the novel has been inspired by Johannes Vermeer’s famous painting Girl with a Pearl Earring, also famous as the “Dutch Mona Lisa.” Little is know about the girl in the painting or who commissioned the work. Tracy Chevalier has, however, beautifully recreated the the circumstances in which the painting was created.

Girl with a Pearl Earring narrates the story of Griet, a sixteen year old working in the Vermeer household as a maid, after her father, a tile painter, was blinded in an accident and the family started having financial problems. Initially unhappy about her new role, Griet soon makes a place for herself in the Vermeer house, even though her mistress, Catherine Vermeer has disliked her from the moment she set eyes on her and tries to make life difficult for her. The novel takes us along with Griet as she discovers first the life of a maid in an affluent family with different religious beliefs and then the world of colors as she starts assisting Vermeer in grinding colors. This last task however leads to trouble for Griet – Catherine’s increased wrath and the unwanted attention of a patron who wants a painting of Griet. 

While Griet’s life at the Vermeer household is a constant series of discoveries, Sundays at home become increasingly oppressive as her family starts cracking under the pressure of poverty. So when the butcher’s son Pieter starts showing interest in Griet, her parents encourage this new alliance in the hope of a better future for both Griet and themselves. The dilemma in Griet’s mind as she struggles on one hand to remember that she is but a maid whose status in the Vermeer household will never change and on the other hand coaxes herself to respond to Pieter’s attentions and reconcile herself to a future as a butcher’s wife is brought out beautifully.

Delightfully rich in descriptions, it’s a little wonder that the book was New York Times bestseller in 2000. I loved how Chevalier has built each character with so many nuances and yet left nothing incomplete. Each and every character has a strong and important role and helps to weave the plot together and bring the book (and the painting) alive. A fascinating book, Girl with a Pearl Earring is a must read for those who love a good story.

Rendez-vous with Pollock and Basquiat

Jackson Pollock (2000) directed by Ed Harris

The first film I saw during Desi Pardesi at the NGMA, Pollock was a film I wanted to see for several reasons. Till last year I knew nothing about Pollock, except that he featured on a tee-shirt I’d bought in France with the faces of the most famous artists through the ages. It was only when the curation team made a Themeefy Mag on him, that I discovered more about him. So I went for this film curious to see how he became the artist he was. An interesting film, with brilliant acting by Ed Harris and even better acting by Marcia Gay Harden as Lee Krasner, Pollock’s wife who inherited the Pollock property  after his death. The film made me wonder if he would have ever made it without his wife, for she not only played the role of his PR (and he sure needed one!) but also nursed him to health after his drinking binges and provided a stable environment for him to paint (right down to making him leave New York and its bars to a less alcohol friendly Long Island where he could find true inspiration).

I can’t pretend to understand Pollock’s art, though I did find his technique rather captivating. I found this composition particularly arresting because of the colours used.

Pollock led a depressing life, like so many artists, and the film left me feeling quite blue (especially for a Sunday morning) so I was rather glad to step out into the sun and soak in the sight of the foliage at NGMA before heading off to mull over the film, Pollock’s life and his oeuvre, while waiting for the next film the following Sunday….

Michel Basquiat (1996) directed by Julian Schnabel

Basquiat, a film about the graffiti artist who is also known for his association with Andy Warhol was another peak into the crazy, unstable life of the inspired. Ambitious and confident to the point of being cocky, Basquiat made his way to a rather lonely top at a very young age. Having recently seen a German documentary on graffiti art, I was expecting to see more of that genre of art. But the film focused more on Basquiat’s rise to  (and eventual fall from) fame.

The son of a middle class family, Basquiat, inspired by famous artists like Van Gogh who produced their best works at the height of their misery, chose to live on the streets and converted public spaces into his canvases. A chance meeting with Warhol and his agent provided Basquiat his first break. Audacious and cocky, he grabbed the first chance he got to have his paintings shown at a gallery. His work was largely appreciated and he became an instant hit in the art circles, but he became a difficult artist just as fast. He changed dealers frequently and his attitude soon gained him a nasty reputation amongst his friends. Basquiat’s long association with Warhol gained him a lot of fame, but that association too came to a bitter end and when Warhol died, Basquiat was no longer in touch with him. Devastated by the death of Warhol, Basquiat went on a downward spiral, turning even more heavily to drugs and eventually died of an overdose at the rather young age of 28.

Like with Pollock’s oeuvre,  Basquiat’s art isn’t really my favoured genre d’art. However the film, like most films I’ve seen at NGMA this was an education. What really hit me in both films was the attitude of both artists and how alcohol and drugs seemed to be the source of their eventual ruin.

Sundays at NGMA.

The Bangalore chapter of the National Gallery of Modern Art, is situated on Palace road, not far from the Alliance Française, so when a student spoke about an exhibition of photographs by Homai Vyarawalla (see this Themeefy for more information), I decided to go there that very day. I was enchanted even before I saw the exhibition – the NGMA is housed in a lovely colonial mansion with a lovely garden and café.

The exhibition itself left a deep impression and I came back home to read up more about the life of Homai, the first Indian woman to become a press journalist. After seeing the exhibition, my friend and I had gone to the extremely charming café for a coffee. That first visit was followed by many afternoons at the NGMA café and it’s become one of my favoured places to visit when I want to work outside.  It’s a pleasure to eat / work at the cafe, under the canopy of the trees, fanned by the gentle breeze swishing its way through the trees and fountains on the campus.

Apart from the exhibitions, NGMA also organises regular workshops and museum visits. I have often seen an elderly gentleman conducting art classes for children on the NGMA premises. But what I really like about NGMA are the film screenings they organise on weekends. What better way to spend a Sunday?

And so it is, that I find my way to NGMA and head straight to the cafe for some cheese omelette toast and lemonade, before stepping into the auditorium for an “art” film.









Desi Pardesi is the second series of films I’m attending at NGMA after Les Grands Maîtres last year, when I saw some excellent films on the frescoes in the Louvre, Degas and Courbet.

(Detailed reviews of the films seen in Desi Pardesi to follow soon!)

Book Review : “Provenance : How a Con Man and a Forger Rewrote the History of Modern Art.”

They say one must not judge a book by its cover, yet some of the more interesting books I’ve read in the last one year, were picked up primarily for their cover. Just like “The Dressmaker of Khair Khana” the cover of Provenance by Laney Salisbury and Aly Sujo, with it’s brilliant hues, made me pick it out of a pile of books at the bi-annual book sale by Strand Bookstore.

Based on the true story of “Professor” John Drewe who successfully conned not only the art dealers and investors, but also the most erudite of the art world, the book takes the reader on an amazing journey through the British art world.

Drewe’s first  “victim” was John Myatt, a single father struggling to provide for his two children and keep a roof over their heads, who eventually became his accomplice as the man who forged over 500 paintings in the name of famous artists such as Le Corbusier and Giacometti.  A pathological liar, Drewe took on various personas and adapted his stories depending on who was in front of him. Tapping  into the insecurities of men, who had lost everything and were struggling to break even, Drewe built an enviable team of dealers and runners who helped him sell the forged paintings. But what was really impressive was the way he hoodwinked the who’s who of the art world, successfully breaching the art archives of holy institutions like the Tate museum of art. The ease with which he was able to fool the erudite of the art world with a small donation of £20,000  or a meal at Claridge’s and gain access to the holiest of art archives, reveals how shallow they were.

A taut narrative, the novel fast drew me into the world of art and forgery. The way a painting is valued has always amazed me. What is it in one painting that makes it worth millions and not there in another which seems the same? This  paragraph that said it all for me :

“Yesterday, this picture was worth millions of guilders and experts and art lovers would come from all over the world and pay money to see it,” he wrote before serving a one-year sentence. “Today it is worth nothing and nobody would cross the street to see it for free. But the picture has not changed. What has?”

Perhaps it was my interest in art that increased the novel’s appeal, but I think that the story has been so well researched and brilliantly narrated that anybody who enjoys a thriller will enjoy it. The book has a certain who-dun-it feel to it, that kept me on my toes till then end, wondering if Drewe will get caught. Would I recommend it? Without a second thought – rarely does one find a book that’s exciting and educating at the same time!

A Letter from Courbet

I saw several films, during the screening of films about the “Grands Maîtres d’Art” organized over 4 weekends at the NGMA (Bangalore) in collaboration with the Alliance Française. The two films that stayed with me and I would strongly recommend to everybody interested in art, whether a novice or an expert are  “La Danse et Degas” and “Courbet, les origines de son monde.”

I knew Courbet as one of the first artists of the Realist movement and have not only studied but also used his painting “Bonjour Monsieur Courbet” in class. Even though I have also studied some of his other works (Artist’s Studio, A Burial at Ornans etc.), the film was a revelation of sorts. Courbet hailed from a reasonably rich family. After abandoning art school in Besançon since it was too slow and boring for him, he moved to Paris to establish himself as a serious artist. Relying heavily on the funds sent by his family every month, Courbet started working towards his career with a single-minded ambition.

Like many other artists, Courbet too rejected the norms and guidelines set by the Academy. Breaking away from the predominantly Romantic and Neoclassic style of paintings in the 19th century, he painted landscapes, still life and portraits, making it a point to address social issues and paint his subjects as they were, even if they were deemed ugly or vulgar by the audience. His paintings caused uproar but after the initial hiccups he was able to find agents and sell his paintings. But he continued to challenge the limits of art, innovating constantly and evolving as an artist. Known for his self portraits, his paintings shocked the genteel society with what they seemed to suggest – lack of grief at a burial, vanity, abject misery, sloth, decadent sensuality. The women in his paintings were not beautifully proportioned, were often prostitutes and their flagrant rejection of modesty shocked the critics and public.

His painting “L’Origine du Monde” (The Origin of the World) sent ripples of shock across the audience. The 19th century audience was not prepared for something as brutal and honest as a painting of a woman’s vagina entitled “The Origin of the World.” Courbet spent the last years of his life in exile in Switzerland, after he was accused of being responsible for the Vendôme Column during the Paris Commune (1871).

The entire story is narrated using letters Courbet sent home, asking his parents to send more money so that he could pursue his artist’s career and make a name for himself in Paris. The epistolary format and the staccato tone of the narration complemented beautifully Courbet’s personality. The film is a Courbet 101 for the beginners and a must watch for those interested in art.

Dimanche matin avec Degas et ses danseuses.

Le mois dernier, la Gallérie Nationale d’Art Moderne à Bangalore a organisé une projection de films documentaires sur des grands maîtres d’art en collaboration avec l’Alliance Française. J’ai pu assister quelques films dont j’ai beaucoup apprécié “La Danse et Degas.” Réalisé par Mischa Scorer le documentaire trace l’obsession de Degas pour les danseuses de ballet.

Degas est souvent inclus dans le groupe des Impressionnistes qui travaillaient en plein air, mais il n’a jamais travaillé dehors son studio et ses sujets de prédilection étaient très différents de ses contemporains Claude Monet et compagnie. Fils d’une famille bourgeoise, Degas avait son propre studio où il faisait des tableaux de tout ce qu’il avait observé dans la rue, dans les bals de danse, et l’opéra. Il allait souvent à l’Opéra pour assister aux séances de ballet. Il a commencé à faire les premières esquisses des danseuses à l’Opéra de Paris. Le corps humain était une obsession pour Degas et les mouvements des danseuses le fascinaient. Il est aussi célèbre pour la série des femmes à la toilette qui avait fait scandale dans la société parisienne. Montrer les femmes dételle manière, sans élégance était presque sacrilège pour l’Académie et Degas.

Sa représentation des danseuses a eu un effet similaire. Les gens qui sont allés voir l’exposition étaient choqués par les peintures. Les danseuses, souvent de milieu pauvre, n’étaient pas belles et Degas les peignait comme elles étaient. En plus, il les peignait dans les poses laides – en grattant le dos, s’étirant les jambes, parlent, en se reposant fatiguées après une séance intense d’entraînement.

Si les peintures ont fait scandale, la sculpture de la jeune danseuse a dégouté le public. Les critiques ont dénigré l’oeuvre en disant que c’était moche. Les pères qui sont allés voir la sculpture ont avoué qu’ils n’allaient pas encourager leur fille à apprendre le ballet. Rejeté, critiqué, Degas a quand-même continué de peindre les danseuses.

Il changeait sa position à l’Opéra pour pouvoir peindre les danseuses de différents angles. Il a commencé à utiliser les couleurs plus vives (et parfois étrange selon les critiques) telles que l’orange et le vert pour la peau, les cheveux.

Son obsession avec le corps humain et plus particulièrement les danseuses n’a jamais baissé et il a continué de les peindre jusqu’à  ses derniers jours. Il voyait peu, mais les mains traçait le corps des danseuses elles-mêmes tant avaient-elles fait ces formes. 

Le film montre très bien l’obsession de Degas en juxtaposant l’analyse de ses peintures avec une biographie. Le rythme staccato du film, la narration et le ton du film vont bien avec le thème. C’est un film à ne pas manquer, même si vous n’êtes pas fan de Degas, car c’est aussi une histoire fascinante et toute personne qui aime la beauté naturelle va aimer ce film.